Once-popular dock speakers are now being traded in for more flexible and convenient Bluetooth or Wi-Fi speakers, which let you enjoy a high-quality listening experience out loud, while keeping your phone close at hand. Even some of the smaller speakers we've tested produced surprisingly good audio when played at anything but the highest volumes.
Using a wireless speaker enables quality music playback, while offering convenience of keeping your smartphone in your pocket. Some wireless speakers support additional networking features and functionality, although they can be more difficult to use and set up.
Phones can connect to wireless speakers in two ways, depending on the connectivity technologies supported by them and the speaker; Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Most wireless speakers will work with Bluetooth, but the more expensive models will go one step further with support for Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Direct.
Bluetooth connections use a "pairing" arrangement, where the two devices (music player or smartphone and wireless speaker) connect. Generally, connecting via Bluetooth is easy and doesn't require any network support, which means you can pair to a speaker just about anywhere. NFC (Near Field Communication) support in a wireless speaker can prove useful in the initial setup where you connect by simply touching the speaker with the smartphone for a connection.
While Bluetooth is very handy, the technology requires the music files to be compressed due to limited bandwidth (whereas Wi-Fi is able to stream uncompressed music) and some audiophiles feel this is a big compromise. While the claimed range for Bluetooth is usually limited to around 10 metres, we've found the range to be higher when tested in a straight line, and even in tests where there were obstructions such as a brick wall or solid core doors.
The big advantage of Wi-Fi speakers is that you can control a number of them over a network (we recommend no more than five). Music can flow throughout a home as the same song is played on each speaker when they are in a different room. Two musical zones can be created to play different tracks or, if you'd rather, a song can be beamed to a solitary speaker. You can play the same music over a number of speakers scattered across a home, play different music from specified speakers (if you have more than one), or even play in stereo by making two speakers play the left and right channels.
In some cases you can take this to extremes and create a multi-channel (5.1) scenario, but this isn't a cost-effective option given the price of these products. It also has enough bandwidth to support uncompressed, high-fidelity streaming, but lacks the convenience of Bluetooth as you must connect the speakers to a network. Networking via Wi-Fi is often tricky. The best speakers we've tested manage to connect to a network in minutes, but the worst can take many attempts - you may even need technical help.
The wireless environment in your home can get very congested, so a speaker that supports both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands can help when you have so many devices on your home wireless network.
AUX-IN: An auxiliary input lets you connect media players that don't connect via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, such as a CD player or a direct output from a computer. The USB connection on some wireless speakers may behave like an AUX-IN for some players, but sometimes it's only there for firmware upgrades or charging the device, so check before you buy. All models in our latest wireless speaker reviews have an auxiliary input using a standard 3.5mm cable connection.
Ethernet (LAN): A few wireless speakers offer Ethernet (wired) connection to a network, which can be handy to eliminate interference from other Wi-Fi sources and it may increase bandwidth – important if you're transferring video as well as sound. Some wireless speakers have a video out port making them a useful part of your home entertainment system.
Wi-Fi direct: Wi-Fi direct lets you make a connection between the music player and the speaker without it having to be part of a home wireless network. AirPlay is an Apple feature that uses Wi-Fi to stream audio throughout your home network. So as long as your speaker's within the Wi-Fi network, you can enjoy your music from your PC or Mac and online, as well as from your iPhone or iPod. Models that use AirPlay in a home wireless networking environment require a router for listening to music, and an internet connection if you want to enjoy online music.
Chromecast: Some models include a built-in Chromecast, so you can cast audio from Android devices. Chromecast doesn't compress data when transmitting audio, so you wind up with better quality sound compared to Bluetooth.
Inbuilt streaming services: If a wireless speaker supports streaming services such as Spotify or Tidal, it can connect directly to the server via Wi-Fi. Instead of sending audio from your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Chromecast etc, essentially turning your handheld device into a remote control. This results in better sound quality as the audio is far less compressed when streaming over Wi-Fi, as opposed to Bluetooth.
Additional speaker support: Some wireless speakers we've tested offer extra features and functionality such as stereo separation. This means two or more wireless speakers can be paired together to form one multi-speaker sound system.
Speakerphone: Several speakers in our tests include microphone support, which lets you use your speaker to talk to someone instead of having to pick up your mobile. This is also a handy feature for conference calling. When a call comes through the mobile, the music pauses and resumes playing once the call has finished.
Dust/water resistance: This can be a handy feature to help extend the life of your wireless speaker if you want to take it to the park, beach or pool. Most models use an IP rating to denote dust and water resistance, which is displayed as IPXX (the first x refers to dust resistance, the second refers to water). The higher the number, the greater resistance, for example, some of the UE Boom range have an IPX3 or IPX4 rating, which basically means they can cope with some splashing water when placed by the pool.
Further up the durability scale are models like the JBL Charge 4 and Sony SRS-XB43 have IPX7 support, a rating that certifies they can be submersed in fresh water a metre deep for a period of 30 minutes. If a speaker has an X in place of a number, it does not have a rating in that category. For example IPX7 means it has not been rated for any kind of dust resistance but a speaker with a rating of IP67 is good for both water and dust ingress.
Smart speakers are a new personal listening product that are quite similar to wireless models in a number of ways. They can stream music from an external device via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or other proprietary systems (e.g. Apple AirPlay), pair with other speakers for stereo separation and/or multi-room playback, and answer calls with the inbuilt microphone.
Many available models also perform quite well in our listening tests, with all sorts of music. However, most smart speakers aren't portable (as they require a power source) or dust and water resistant.
In other words, they're designed to stay indoors.
Unlike most wireless speakers, smart speakers can connect to the internet, so you can stream online music without having to use a Bluetooth device such as your smartphone. You can also select songs, artists and albums using voice commands - e.g. "hey Alexa, play Crowded House." However, this depends on the services that are available on the smart speaker. Spotify, for example, is only built-into Amazon Alexa enabled speakers as of June 2018.
If your preferred service isn't available on a smart speaker, you can still stream music via Bluetooth as normal.
Use our recommendations below to help you choose the speakers that are right for you.
Highly mobile (Portable speakers)
You need something light and portable, with a battery as well as mains power that's Bluetooth-enabled. Look for a speaker that can fit in your backpack or coat pocket. The outer casing is often rugged to protect it when you're out and about, and you may also want an built-in mic as the speaker would be useful as a speakerphone.
These types of speakers should deliver acceptable quality audio at low to medium volume levels, but don't expect too much from them when the volume is turned up to 11. All these models could be used for outdoor parties or travelling and so would need to be fully portable with good battery life. A Bluetooth connection is important as you need to be able to use the speakers without being connected to a home network.
A single personal speaker for use in one room (e.g. bedroom, kitchen), and when you're out and about. Premium audio brands are releasing stand-alone Bluetooth speakers powerful enough to deliver your favourite music with gusto. Some brands will support the AptX audio codec to retain the detail typically lost when transferring a file over Bluetooth.
Seriously networked (Home speakers)
Portability is a bonus, but your emphasis is on being able to have speakers in separate rooms that can be controlled from a single point. They can play from all sorts of sources other than your mobile device (e.g. music saved to your hard drive or a NAS, or network attached storage).
You might want to look at models that provide more bass than the pocket speaker models. Sonos pioneered this sort of system, but it has real competition now. Google, Amazon, Yamaha and Apple, along with brands more commonly associated with hi-fi equipment such as Bose and Bang and Olufsen, have speakers that let you have them as part of your home network environment.
A smart screen with small display is meant to be all things to all people within the home networking environment. While the overall speaker performance may not be fantastic, there are many tasks they can perform to make your modern life easier. Watching the occasional video, checking out the latest recipe in the kitchen or getting a rundown on the news are all things you can expect to get from a good smart screen device - as well as reasonable music quality.
Bluetooth speakers can be bought for less than a hundred dollars, but audiophiles can spend a thousand dollars on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capable speakers.